Sustainable grocer Mason & Greens opens mid-pandemic

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Jars of different forms of bar "soap," including shampoo bars, conditioner bars and facial cleansing bars. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

As small businesses are forced to close their doors and lay off employees because of the novel coronavirus, one couple is braving the impossible – opening a new business in the midst of a global pandemic.

Anna and Justin Marino opened Mason & Greens, a sustainable dry goods and grocery shop, at 913 King St. on March 27, possibly becoming the only grocery store in Alexandria that has never had a customer inside.

Anna and Justin Marino, owners of Mason & Greens, with wares from their new store. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

The couple started working on the shop’s business plan last summer and closed on their business loan in December. They signed the lease at the King Street space, the former location of boutique home goods store Maggie Jane’s, in January. They gave themselves plenty of time to decorate the space and bring in inventory before their planned grand opening in early April – or so they thought.

“Everything was going swimmingly,” Justin said. “Well, and then a pandemic happens.”

While the coronavirus forced them to rethink their business strategy and grand opening plans, the husband-and-wife duo managed to open the shop on time. Like many small businesses still operating while most of the country is staying home, the Marinos elected to keep customers out of the store and offer online ordering only. They moved up their website launch so that customers could order online at www.masonandgreens.com, then pick up their orders at the store.

“That’s really all that we could do for the time being, and so far, it’s been good,” Justin said. “The community support has been great. We like that people are coming up to the door and saying, ‘When can I come in? When can I come in?’ Because we will get there, hopefully sooner rather than later, but for the time being, the model that we’re doing right now is effective.”

Mason & Greens is a zero-waste grocery store, where customers can bring their own containers and fill them with bulk dry goods and supplies – a shopping experience without plastic packaging, disposable bags or unnecessary waste. It is the first zero-waste shop of its kind in the D.C. region, according to the Marinos.

Bulk goods in Mason & Greens’ grocery section include beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, rice, pasta and more. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

“One out of every three pounds of plastic is for packaging,” Justin said. “That’s amazing that we use that much just to throw away, just to get something from point A to point B, and then we pitch it. It’s kind of a shame that it has to be like that.”

Mason & Greens’ bulk grocery items include pasta, rice, flour, dried beans, nuts, powders and more. The shop also offers bulk liquids, including shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent and hand sanitizer – a hot commodity these days – in large jugs with pumps.

Eventually, people will be able to bring their own containers to the store to fill with the bulk goods. Customers will weigh their empty containers first, fill them, then weigh them again, so that they pay for only the contents of the containers. Until customers can enter the shop and bring their own vessels, the liquid bulk materials will come in glass jars and the dry bulk items will come in paper bags.

In addition to food, cleaning products, personal care and more, the shop offers everyday supplies, such as hairbrushes, toothbrushes, cotton “unpaper” towels and dental floss.

“[We’re] showing people that there are alternatives, because … you’re just used to using these things in your normal everyday life,” Anna said. “Like dental floss is made out of nylon. You throw it out and say, ‘Oh it’s so small and insignificant,’ but think about how many billions of people live on the planet, and if we all are throwing out this small little amount of dental floss, it adds up.”

In line with its zero-waste philosophy, Mason & Greens reuses the plastic containers that hold bulk liquids, sending them back to suppliers for refills. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Anna and Justin, who have been married and living in Alexandria since 2012, were inspired to open Mason & Greens after shifting their personal lifestyles last year.

“We decided to take a look at all the trash we were creating on a weekly basis and if there was any way we could possibly cut it out,” Anna said. “I think one of the first cuts we made was getting rid of paper towels and using reusable towels.”

“You look around at all you’re doing and what you’re putting in your garbage, and you’re like, ‘What can I cut out? What else can I cut out?’ It’s really almost addictive,” Justin said.

Between composting, recycling and using reusable supplies when they can, Anna, Justin and their two children produce only one gallon-sized bag of waste per week.

Once they began shifting to a sustainable lifestyle, they found it was often difficult to find products without excess packaging and realized others must be experiencing the same issue.

“We know that there are so many people in this area who have needed something like this,” Justin said. “One of the interesting ways to gauge community support for it … was the compost program at the [Old Town] Farmers’ Market.

“They do hundreds of pounds of compost per hour down there,” Justin continued. “That’s amazing that people are bringing their compost bins to the market to dump and carrying those bins around with them as they shop at the market and things like that. If people are willing to do that, then we know that there is very strong support for anything that we would sell in our shop.”

A reusable canvas shopping bag from Mason & Greens. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

In addition to making sure that their products produce zero-waste, the Marinos ensure that their suppliers match their mission.

Most of the products in the retail section are delivered to the shop in eco-friendly materials, Anna said. For the grocery items that must come in plastic packaging to meet health requirements, the Marinos send the plastic to a company that repurposes it.

The Marinos also consider location when choosing suppliers.

“When we talk about sustainability and helping the environment, a lot of it involves not shipping stuff long distances,” Justin said. “The impact of that is pretty profound. When we’re talking about shipping tons of pineapples and bananas and stuff like that over thousands of miles, the impact of that is actually profound and a lot of people don’t think about it.”

Most of the shop’s goods come from regional suppliers. By mid-May, the Marinos plan to offer a selection of produce grown at a farm in Loudoun County.

While the grocer is fulfilling a demand for people who already live a sustainable lifestyle, the Marinos hope it will convert some who aren’t.

“I think a lot of people shy away from this because they don’t fully grasp how destructive one plastic bag can be,” Anna said. “The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes, and then it’s just trash, and the likelihood [is] that it’s going to float out into the ecosystem. … Everything is connected, and the smallest choice that you make to live a more sustainable life is in the great scheme of things, going to help globally.”

Starting in May, Mason & Greens will open for in-person shopping by appointment, in order to limit the number of people in the space and sanitize in between customers. For more information, visit www.masonandgreens.com/in-store-shopping.

(Read more: Drive-through COVID-19 testing comes to Old Town)

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